Dear Sam: I had my own business for more than 25 years and grew it to $3 million in sales. While this sounds good, unfortunately, it required my attention with every facet of the business; therefore, I consider myself good at many things, but not good enough in any one specific area to compete as a subject matter expert. One of the issues I and many other entrepreneurs face, is a stigma in the potential employer’s mind of “Can this person work for anyone after he/she has been his/her own boss?” What advice can you provide the thousands of former business owners who are now seeking to become employees? – John
Dear John: Congratulations on the success of your business. As you mentioned, there is a potential stigma surrounding a former business owner/entrepreneur. Typically, entrepreneurs are engaged by challenges and quickly move on when the challenge has been overcome; they like autonomy, they prefer to “make” the rules, and they have thrived in environments they have created. Some also assume an entrepreneur’s desire to be an employee will be short-lived, and perhaps just a stopping point on the journey toward a new entrepreneurial engagement. All of these characteristics often cause concern for the hiring manager attempting to recruit and retain talent.
As an entrepreneur, one of the most important things you can do is figure out how to position yourself. As you mentioned, you are a generalist; you have done a little of everything, so find it difficult to compete with the specialists out there. To compete more effectively, and more successfully, you need to define your target, meaning figure out what you want to do and tailor your resume and its content in that direction to make you look more like a specialist. Doing this will likely mean you have two and possibly more versions of your resume—with select pieces of your background included versus omitted depending on the target—based on how many different types of opportunities you are pursuing.
For instance, a lot of times I position entrepreneurs for business development and relationship management roles as this makes sense based on their proven success developing and retaining a client base; for an alternate target, I often position them as operations or human resources managers which is also a target which would make sense. Another common approach is preparing a resume positioning a successful business owner as a consultant to other small businesses, allowing the entrepreneur to continue to run a business but perhaps have fewer clients and longer-term engagements. Knowing that you have a broad skill set is a wonderful “value-add” to reinforce during an interview; but on your resume, be sure you are presenting a targeted and refined image of who you are as a candidate so that you can compete against those specialists or subject matter experts (SMEs) out there.
Key to your success will also be your ability to leverage your network to open doors. More often than not I see past business owners find opportunities based on who they know, not what they know. Leveraging your network, and seeking referrals for open and closed market opportunities, will provide the third-party credibility hiring managers seek. Having someone explain your journey to a potential employer—combined with the unique skill set you offer—will alleviate some of the concerns surrounding whether you will return to business ownership at some point in the near future. Through a targeted resume, an understanding of how you are marketing yourself at this juncture in your career, and the willingness to tap into your valuable business network, should open the doors to a more traditional employer-employee relationship. I wish you success in this new stage in your career.